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Just That The Time Was Wrong

Serpentine  (Serpentine, volume 1)

By Cindy Pon 

21 Oct, 2022

Doing the WFC's Homework

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2015’s Serpentine is the first of two books in Cindy Pon’s Serpentine historical fantasy duology.

While young, both Zhen Ni and Skybright know full well the path their lives must take. Aristocratic Zhen Ni will be married off to the suitable highborn man her parents choose for her. When Zhen Ni leaves her parent’s household, her handmaid Skybright will accompany her. Married life will follow, as might children, and eventually death. Zhen Ni and Skybright’s happiness is irrelevant.

Their lives will take a different turn.

Teenaged Zhen Ni is indifferent to the charms of men, young or old. The popular literature of the era covers matters romantic and sexual quite forthrightly, so Zhen Ni is well aware that men are not the only choice on the menu. It would be convenient if Zhen Ni and Skybright found each other attractive in this way, since they will be together for life. They don’t, so Zhen Ni looks elsewhere.

A handmaid should be attentive enough to notice when her mistress is pursuing matters contrary to the family interests. But Skybright is too distracted by her own personal drama to pay sufficient attention to Zhen Ni. Recently Skybright has been waking up as a giant half-woman, half-snake. She doesn’t know why or how, but she is certain that this is not good news.

Skybright knew she was a foundling. What she only belatedly discovers is that when she was found in the woods as a baby, she was dusted with snake scales. Why? her mother was the ferocious snake-woman, Opal. Opal, inexplicably, fell in love with a human and Skybright was the result.

Conveniently for Skybright, she has not only one, but two sources of information about snake-women.

  • Kai Sen is not quite a monk, although he lives with monks. He is very definitely a handsome young man.
  • Stone is an immortal shapeshifting demon who knew Opal.

While the two have found themselves on opposing sides of an ancient war, Kai Sen and Stone agree on most points regarding snake-women and other demons: it is snake-women’s nature to be cruel and predatory.

The gates between the mortal world and the demon world have opened again. War between humanity and demon kind has begun again. Skybright is, if not a demon, then closely related to them. Despite this, she covertly uses her monstrous abilities to protect humans1. She’s not living up to demon expectations.

Zhen Ni also rejects conventions, human conventions. She engages in a torrid affair with a visiting gentlewoman. When this is discovered, Zhen Ni’s lover is sent home. Zhen Ni slips away from her household and sets off to rejoin her lover.

A lone, naïve aristocrat journeying alone is foolish enough. It’s worse: Zhen Ni is unwittingly traversing a battlefield. Skybright must save her, but how to do so without betraying her true nature to her mistress?


This is a fine example of a competently executed novel for which I am not the intended audience. On the one hand, I realize that this is only to be expected; I am but one reader, a reader with preferences that not all books, even good ones, will satisfy. On the other hand, I am peeved that someone who has never heard of me has failed to take me into account. Not fair, I say, shaking my cane and shouting at the clouds.

A cynic would point out that the person for whom Zhen Ni falls happens to be the first woman that she encounters who is both of a suitable class2 and not a relative3. A realist would point out that the Xia culture has taken the right approach to producing legions of frustrated people trapped in unhappy marriages4. Sad for them but so convenient for storytellers5.

Many fantasy novels feature demonic armies repeatedly swarming into the human realm despite centuries of that approach having repeatedly failed. In many settings, this seems to be due to the demons’ inability to learn from experience. In this one, the demons have a sensible reason, one that ties into the greater themes of the novel.

Those more fond of star-crossed lovers than I am will enjoy this more than I did.

Serpentine is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Barnes & Noble), here (Book Depository), and here (Chapters-Indigo).

1: Kai Sen being high on Skybright’s list of humans to protect. 

2: To be fair, Zhen Ni would have been perfectly satisfied had Skybright been compatible, but she wasn’t.

3: For that matter, Skybright may be the first woman Kai Sen has seen, while Kai Sen may have been the first man from outside the household with whom Skybright had routine contact. How astonishing that they should fall for the only available option.

4: This isn’t a flaw in the system, as personal happiness isn’t the point. In fact, pursuing it consistently leads to unfortunate outcomes.

5: East Asian literature is replete with tales of star-crossed lovers.